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Liability on the line: Choose words carefully

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Warn supervisors to watch what they say. Making a statement that suggests the employee’s gender was in any way connected with workplace discipline is asking for a lawsuit.

Recent case: Monifa worked as a sergeant for the Wake County Sheriff’s Department. When she arrived at work one morning, she learned that a prisoner on suicide watch had spread feces on his body and on the walls and windows. She escorted him to another cell so the first cell could be cleaned.

It wasn’t long before the prisoner was again covered in excrement. This time, Monifa got two male officers to cover the prisoner with a sheet, take him to the shower area and scrub him down. Monifa supervised, but claims she didn’t see the prisoner shower. She did later admit she saw him in the third cell, where he was kept naked for a while.

A week later, Monifa’s supervisor admonished her, saying she shouldn’t have been in the men’s shower area. She was eventually discharged for what the prison said was dishonesty when answering questions about her presence in the shower area.

Monifa sued, alleging sex discrimination. She claimed her supervisor specifically told her she was being fired “based solely on the fact that she was a woman.”

That was enough for the court to order a trial on sex discrimination. The sheriff’s department will have to try to explain away the statement in front of a jury. (Gethers v. Wake County Sheriff, et al., No. 5:12-CV-430, ED NC, 2014)

Final note: While the supervisor may have intended to say that Monifa was being discharged because women weren’t allowed in the shower area when a male prisoner showered, that’s not what he apparently said.

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